Monday, April 22, 2013

Picking A Foreign Language For Primary Schools

English: Dialects of the french language in th...
Dialects of the French language (Wikipedia)
by Hannah McCarthy
The new National Curriculum will be introduced in 2014 and will finally see the much discussed idea of compulsory language learning in primary schools come into effect.

Primary pupils will have to learn at least one of the seven long list chosen by the government.

These languages are: French, German, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Latin or ancient Greek.

With a mixture of languages included, spanning Europe and Asia, which language is best suited to primary learning?

French, German, Spanish

These languages are the popular trio offered among secondary schools in the UK. French is the usual first choice, usually followed by either German or Spanish.

There are several reasons why French is perhaps a suitable, if obvious choice, most of them relating to history. French was traditionally the language of the nobility, it was widely spoken at court and it was considered a sophisticated and attractive language.

For these reasons, British nobility and the monarchy were often taught French. Furthermore, Britain has a history of alliance with France, so learning the French language could give children a better insight into their history and the French culture.

Lastly, the glaringly obvious reason why French might be a good choice, is that it is not a million miles away. For Brits looking for a weekend break, France is a good option and knowing how to converse with the locals is an obvious benefit.

Britain also has a lot of history with Germany, which like France is fairly nearby. These factors sweeten the choice of learning German but it is the similarities between German and English which particularly make it an attractive option.

English is a Germanic language so for native English speakers, pronunciation and vocabulary are more easily learnt than for other nationalities. Having said that, German could be daunting for young learners because it has some complex grammatical structures which are very different from English.

Spanish has a reputation for being the easiest of the three taught in English schools. In this context, easiness is defined by how many contact hours it takes to reach basic proficiency. Spanish students require fewer contact hours than French or German. German students need the most.

This means Spanish is a good option for young learners who will gain a sense of accomplishment and be able to use it more quickly than they might other languages. Spanish is also becoming increasingly relevant with Hispanic influences apparent in world culture and millions of Spanish speakers in the US alone.


The perks of learning Italian are mostly cultural. As a beautiful holiday destination, it could be useful in later life in terms of leisure. It also offers children a gateway into some valuable European culture, helping them to understand the renaissance and embrace different art forms such as opera. Considered to be an attractive language, children are likely to have fun learning it.


Mandarin has uses in business. Choosing mandarin for young learners is likely to give them a very early head start in terms of employment as it is increasingly becoming a world language which will affect Britain's economic future.

It does have a different alphabet which is a daunting aspect for younger children but they are best approaching new letters while they are still young and developing. Learning a new alphabet later in life is very difficult.

Latin and Ancient Greek

Classic studies are less popular nowadays, which is partly the reason why these two languages have been included in the list. It is hoped that having some schools choose them will bring classic studies back to life in this country.

Linguistically, learning these languages is very helpful, particularly for learning other languages in the future as well.

Both Latin and ancient Greek give a good grounding in grammar, syntax and vocabulary which is applicable to many of today's modern languages including English. This might improve the literacy skills of primary children.

Ultimately, the decision will have to be made individually by primary schools and it will be affected by a lot of factors.

Schools initially will be limited by the capabilities of their staff so it is likely that French, German and Spanish will remain the popular choices for the time being until more people become trained in the other choices.

Hopefully though, in the future, there will be a good spread of languages taught across primary schools as all the options have their merits.

Hannah McCarthy works for Education City, which provides teaching resources for schools and families and offers curriculum-based modules in maths, science, English and modern foreign languages. The language modules help pupils to learn Spanish, French and German at home.

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